EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Graham Gano was in the best groove of his career when he kicked a 37-yard field goal for the Carolina Panthers in their loss at Tampa Bay on Dec. 2, 2018. In the 28 games since the start of the 2017 season, he had attempted 36 field goals and missed only three, a 91.7% success rate.
Gano had every reason to think the good times would continue without interruption. But when the Giants begin their 2020 season Monday night in MetLife Stadium against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gano will play his first game since that warm and humid afternoon in Florida.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it," Gano said this week. "I've definitely missed playing. But even through the time I missed, I've mentally stayed in the game. Last season, I was preparing as if I was going to play. It just didn't happen, but I was able to stay around the building for a little while at the end and still lock in. Whether I was watching on T.V. or at the stadium, I still kind of went through my whole mental process. It's been nice to get back behind a live rush at practice. It was exciting to see I picked right back up where I left off. It's been really fun."
Gano's hiatus was caused by a fracture to his left (plant) leg that he suffered three days before the game against the Bucs. On Nov. 29, 2019, the one-year anniversary, he tweeted, "Kicking @ Tampa that weekend was fun." Gano missed the final four games of that season and all of 2019 after being placed on injured reserve on Aug. 30 with what was ultimately a knee injury.
Gano, 33, admitted he wondered at times if he would return to the field.
"There were always times where doubt sort of creeps in and you wonder, especially after the first season that I had injured it and then coming back and the next preseason having the same injury," he said. "It was frustrating. It was misdiagnosed down there. To come up here to New York and get my second opinion by Dr. (Riley) Williams at HSS was a bit of a relief, actually finding out what was the matter with my leg and knowing he was fully confident and able to fix it. I think that was great just having one of the best surgeons, or the best surgeon in the country at what he does, working on my knee. I was confident I was going to be able to come back."
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That officially occurred when the Giants signed him on Aug. 19. Gano immediately developed a rapport with snapper Casey Kreiter and punter/holder Riley Dixon. His transition to a new team was eased by rejoining familiar faces from Carolina, including general manager Dave Gettleman, cornerback James Bradberry, linebacker David Mayo and Thomas McGaughey, who was the Panthers' special team coach in 2016-17.
"T-Mac's great," Gano said. "We had some really good times down there in Carolina when we were together. I like his coaching style, I like the energy that he brings to the team and to the guys in the meeting room. He's definitely very experienced and very talented as a coach. He also knows how to relate to the players. He's had a lot of success. It's definitely exciting to be back up here with him."
In Gano's second season with McGaughey, he was selected to the Pro Bowl after making 29 of 30 field goal attempts, a career and NFL-best 96.7%.
"He looks exactly the way I remember him," McGaughey said. "He had a great year last time I was with him. Nothing has changed with Graham, he is getting back into his groove. He's enjoying himself. He is just acclimating himself to the building and how we operate here. I'm looking forward to great things from Graham."
Gano has been a productive and reliable kicker since he entered the NFL with Washington in 2009. He joined the Panthers three years later and didn't miss a game until injuring his leg in 2018. Gano has made 224 of 273 field goal attempts (82.1%) and 306 of 321 PATs (95.3%) and scored 978 points.
Perhaps his most memorable kick was a dagger to the Giants' collective heart, a 63-yarder with one second remaining that gave the Panthers a 33-31 victory in Charlotte on Oct. 7, 2018. It was a Panthers franchise record and the longest field goal ever kicked against the Giants.
"That was an exciting moment for the team down there," Gano said. "That was a fun game. We couldn't believe it on our side that we had blown such a lead (11 points in the fourth quarter). That was an exciting one I'll never forget, for sure."
Gano has also hit 12 of 15 field goal tries in seven postseason games, including Carolina's 24-10 loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.
"It was a great experience," Gano said. "I definitely wish the result was different, but that's something that you dream of as a kid. Especially kicking off to open the game, that was pretty special. Looking forward to getting back into that game. That's one of my goals, to win Super Bowls. That's everybody on the team's goal."
The Giants won two with Lawrence Tynes, who is nine years older than Gano but has a remarkably similar story. Both were born in Scotland, moved to the same region in Florida and became prolific NFL kickers.
"I've known of Lawrence from growing up in the same area and having similar backgrounds," Gano said. "Both of our mums are Scottish and our dads were in the military. We didn't grow up too far from one another. We actually have the same agent as well. He's just someone I've talked to over the years. We share that Scottish connection as well as the northwest Florida connection, too."
The kickers share another similarity. Tynes, the only kicker in NFL history with two postseason game-winning field goals in overtime, played in just two games and attempted one field goal in 2008 after suffering a knee injury in training camp. He returned the following year to play in every game and score a career-high 126 points.
Gano hopes for a similarly successful comeback and is calm and confident as he prepares for his return to game action.
"I don't get too nervous," he said. "I've always been that way. You just prepare for it mentally. I put myself in those situations in practice, and it's fun. That's what we train for. At the end of the day, it's just playing a game. It's just playing football. That's one thing about kicking. Kicking doesn't change, whether it's a preseason game, regular season or postseason. You're still doing the same exact things. I definitely get fired up for games. I'm excited to play on Monday night."